Posts Tagged ‘UN Law of the Sea’

Seabed Mining is Real

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Seabed mining is a new frontier and the payoff for the miners is going to be huge. This is mining beyond the continental shelves, beyond 200m depth, on the continental slopes and beyond, down to the deep hydrothermal vents that occur around the widening rifts where tectonic plates slowly separate. The mining will be industrial scale, and it will be out of sight.

The mineral deposits, particularly around deep sea vents, are extraordinarily rich in copper, gold, iron, cobalt, and invaluable rare earth metals. They are irresistible.

This is a 300 ton machine, now built, ready to be sunk onto the deep seabed near Papua New Guinea where it will break up the mineral rich vent smokers and render the rubble ready for transport to the surface.   (nautilus.com)

This is a 300 ton machine, now built, ready to be sunk onto the deep seabed near Papua New Guinea where it will break up the mineral rich vent smokers and render the rubble ready for transport to the surface. (nautilus.com)

Seabed mining has been a dream of the rich nations and corporations for decades. Figuring out how to govern it in international waters almost scuttled the Law of the Sea in the early 1990s, but the community of nations eventually agreed to postpone those decisions until seabed mining became a reality, and most of the remaining reluctant nations ratified the Law (pretty well all did except for the US).

Well, now instead of being decades off in the future, seabed mining is real, imminent, and the governance by the UN International Seabed Authority is weak. We are not prepared.

Though a number of countries or companies are licensed to explore sites in the Pacific to begin mining, the first to hit the seabed will be Nautilus Minerals, whose regular press releases provide a drumbeat for its accumulating progress. It’s worth checking out the company, for it provides a sense of the scale of interest and the inevitable exploitation that lies ahead. Though it is exploring opportunities in international waters, this first actual mining will be at a depth of 1600 m in EEZ of Papua New Guinea – a rare site where hydrothermal vents occur in national waters.

Site of the first seabed mining in the national waters of Papua New Guinea (gcaptain.com)

Site of the first seabed mining in the national waters of Papua New Guinea (gcaptain.com)

Nautilus Minerals is registered in Canada, its main office is in Brisbane, the surface ship is being built and will be outfitted in Fujian Province on the coast of China, the three huge mining machines/vehicles are being built in Newcastle-on-Tyne in the UK, the motors for the ship are under construction in Norway, and the major investor is Oman. PNG is of course well paid for the license. The ore will be stock-piled in PNG and then sent to refineries around the world. A cyber attack from an unknown source very recently cost the company $10 million. This is as global as it gets.

The surface ship, 247mx40m, with a crew of 180, will first drop the cutter the to prepare the bottom, then the crusher to break the rock up, and finally the collector to pump the slurry to the surface ship. (cares.nautilus.com)

The surface ship, 247mx40m, with a crew of 180, will first drop the cutter to prepare the bottom, then the crusher to break the rock up, and finally the collector to pump the slurry to the surface ship. (cares.nautilus.com)

The Nautilus video tells us that the payoff of mining the 11 hectares under license will be a billion dollars, that there really are no fish there to worry about, and the environmental damage will be negligible. Believe what you like.

The destruction of the bottom vents and their associated biological communities will be total wherever vent mining occurs. Recovery is not possible unless you think in terms of millions of years. (fakrockefeller.org)

The destruction of the bottom vents and their associated biological communities will be total wherever vent mining occurs. Recovery is not possible unless you think in terms of millions of years. (fakrockefeller.org)

The questions are now urgent.
– How much of the seabed should we protect from mining?
– How do we fairly govern mining in international waters?
– Can we give the International Seabed Authority the vision and power it needs, or do we need new organization?
– How do we enforce any agreements that are made?
– How do we monitor what we can’t see except through very expensive remote sensing?

And there’s more. Will the profits be shared only by the nations and investors who can afford to mount the efforts? Surely that is not fair. But then how will the profits be shared by the world’s less affluent nations?

The existing UN Law of the Sea, ratified by almost all the countries of the world except for the US, is by far the best tool available to address these questions. It can be modified, expanded, used to prevent the potential huge abuse of the seabed mining initiative that is now upon us.

This time it should be guided by the Precautionary Approach, by agreement that the seabed, at least in international waters, is a world resource, and the US should finally ratify the Law of the Sea so that it can play a real part in the emerging agreements.

Meanwhile we can all watch what Nautilus Minerals does. With everyone watching, they may truly try to do it right.

The famous, giant and unique tube worms of a hydrothermal vent community, with smokers in the background (imgarcade.com)

The famous giant and unique tube worms of a hydrothermal vent community, with smokers in the background (imgarcade.com)

Return of the Law of the Sea

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

The US helped to create the the UN Law of the Sea in 1982, but has never ratified it (squidoo.com)

I started this series of blogs almost three years ago with a commentary on the Law of the Sea, ending with the hope that Senator Kerry, as the new Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, would take the initiative and try to get Congress to finally ratify it.

Three years of silence. In that time, Thailand, the Dominican Republic, Malawi and Switzerland have ratified it, bringing the total to 162 of the world’s nations. All industrialized nations have ratified it, and the US remains in the embarrassing company of Ethiopia, Burundi, Iran and North Korea.

All industrialized countries except the US have ratified the UN Law of the Sea (middlebury.edu)

Now, however, Senator Kerry has decided to bring it before the Foreign Relations Committee once again (it has been approved there once before). In support of it, the Committee will hear from the Secretary of State, the Defense Secretary, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, oil companies and potential mining companies, various environmental organizations, and even the US Chamber of Commerce. Quite astonishing to see all of these on the same side of any issue.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Foreign Relations Committee on May 23, 2012. Beside her are Secreatary of Defense Leon Panetta, and General Martin Demsey, Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (knoxnews.com)

Why now? Well, increasingly the US needs to be a legal player in the territorial negotiations that are underway in both the Arctic and the South China Sea. The stakes for the US in both regions are very high. It has no official vote, and anyway how can it push for enforcement of international laws that it hasn’t itself been able to ratify?

The Law of the Sea concerns so much that is of interest to the US – navigation rights, fisheries access, environmental protection, seabed-mining rights, prosecution of pirates like those of Somalia, as well as determination of territorial boundaries.

Refusal now to ratify the Law of the Sea will continue to embarrass the US, and will erode and destabilize emerging international agreements. The US loses authority, credibility, influence and certainly prestige while it remains unwilling to ratify the Law.

China claims most of the South China Sea, with resistance from four other nations, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. The US has growing interests in the region. (middlebury.edu)

So surely this time it will be ratified.

Dream on.

In the US Congress, the House of Representatives has already passed a bill refusing any funds for implementing the Law if it is ratified. Meanwhile, in the Senate – where any treaty needs to be passed by a 2/3 majority (67 votes) – 27 senators have already signed a letter pledging their opposition to the Law. Senator Kerry has agreed to delay any votes on the Law of the Sea until after the November election. This does not look hopeful

Shrill opposition, still easily found on the Internet, comes from those who think the Law would curtail US sovereignty, from those who hate and fear the UN, from those who believe the US should use its power to go its own way against the rest of the world, from those who believe the are two sets of rules – one for the US, one for everyone else.

The Law of the Sea assumes that the rule of law, based on negotiations and cooperation, is essential and valuable for all players. No one thinks the Law of the Sea is perfect, but it can evolve, as treaties do. The advantages of ratification for the US are overwhelming.

The US now has the another opportunity to regain some of its lost status, and to show some true leadership, with maturity and cooperation.

Failure to ratify the Law of the Sea is so dangerous.
We have so little time to try to get things right.

South China Sea

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

The South China Sea is in the news again, and the question remains: who owns it?

China claims the whole region. The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan all disagree.

China claims pretty well all of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Phillipines, and Malaysia have quite different views.

At stake are the rights to the resources – mostly oil and gas, since the fisheries have been so extensively overexploited, and pollution levels are so high. A huge amount of marine traffic passes through the Sea, raising global interest.

China claims ownership of both the Paracel and the Spratly Islands, lying in the middle of the Sea. No one is particularly interested in living on these islands – they are small and low, mostly rocks and islets. But whoever owns them can claim substantial parts of the South China Sea.

China has put some of its military into garrisons on the Paracels, and is promoting the islands for tourism. It will probably win the ownership game there, despite Vietnam’s protests.

Chinese soldiers training on the Paracel Islands (globalnation.inqirer.net)

Both China and Vietnam claim that their explorers first found the Spratlys a millennium or two ago. But the islands lie just a few km from the Philippine province of Palawan, and the Philippines have administered the islands since WW2. They have have a far stronger claim.

Most disputes concerning the EEZ boundaries of adjacent nations have been worked out by the nations themselves, or by arbitration by the International Court in The Hague, or are under preparation for such arbitration, according to UN Law of the Sea.

But not the South China Sea – probably because China, who claims all of it, including much of the 200 mile EEZ territory of the other coastal countries, won’t get all of it if it goes to UN arbitration.

China would seem to have the advantage, for its sheer size and power would let it enforce its views. But China also needs good relations with its neighbors, and still prefers to work this out through negotiations.

As always China prefers to have bilateral discussions rather than multilateral ones. It also takes a long view, assuming its wishes will prevail eventually. Remember it was early to ratify the UN Law of the Sea, with the intent to work within the law, and over time change the law where it needs changing. The US still hasn’t ratified it.

Air strip in the enticing Spratly Islands

Now all this is back in the news, however briefly, because of last week’s East Asia Summit meetings in Bali. Most of the 18 nations represented spoke up in favor of multinational discussions to resolve the ownership question. Obama, the first US president to attend the meetings, intent on increasing US presence and influence in the region, has encouraging China to listen to others and to negotiate.

The big accomplishment of the meetings is that China didn’t reject the idea. I guess that is progress.

Meanwhile, Vietnam calls the sea the Eastern Sea, while the Philippines calls it the West Philippine Sea. The US is establishing a military base on the north coast of Australia, and China is carrying out navy maneuvers in the region. India wants to begin oil exploration in the Sea.

Secretary of State Clinton at the East Asia summit in Bali. She said that the disputes should be resolved according to the UN Law of the Sea (telegraphjournal,canadadeast.com).

The temperature is clearly rising. So let’s hear it for multinational negotiations, for invoking the UN Law of the Sea through arbitration at The Hague, and for sharing access to the resources in some reasonable fashion.

Yet the end result will be much the same – the seabed will be exploited, China will own or buy most of the resources, and the sea lanes will somehow remain free and open.

Sounds a lot like the situation in the Arctic, where Canada, playing the role of Vietnam or the Philippines, still thinks it is a strong player.

A little real life remains in the Spratlys: a white-tailed tropic bird (virtualtourist.com)

The US and the UN Law of the Sea

Friday, August 21st, 2009

(Michael Berrill. mberrill@trentu.ca)

The UN Law of the Sea has now been ratified by 157 countries. That is practically everybody. It is the most extraordinary international agreement that the planet has yet achieved. Very few have not ratified it – North Korea and Iran come to mind.  European countries ratified it before they joined the European Union, and the EU has ratified it again on their behalf.  China, Japan, Mexico and even Canada have all ratified it. But still not the USA.

The US adheres to the Law’s provisions, and was even active in negotiating the amendments related to ocean bottom mining and high seas fishing – but still has not ratified it.  US presidents since Reagan have indicated support for it,  even Bush Junior. Negotiations about the future use and ownership of the Arctic are underway,  and will be based on the Law’s provisions, but the US will not have a vote until it ratifies the Law.  The Foreign Relations Committee has indicated support for it over the past few years,  and so has the US military.

The current Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, has said that bringing The Law of the Sea to a vote is a priority. But will it happen? Will the US finally ratify it? It has come close before, and not made it out of committee.

The opposition is based on two perceptions.  One is the view of right-wing conspiracy theorists who believe that because the LOS is a UN initiative, it is by definition dangerous and anti-American. The second is that it might diminish some of the limitless rights that some still think the US deserves. Both of these perceptions are without basis, but arguments are rarely won or lost based on the strength of rational arguments.

Only one country loses if the US continues to fail to ratify the Law of the Sea.   This is a good time to take action.

What are your plans, John Kerry?